A looming drought is manageable. Long-term changes to the monsoon might be catastrophic
www.economist.com, Jul 28th 2012 | DASNA, UTTAR PRADESH
THE dizzying midday heat of India’s northern plains cracks the earth. Farmers
slump on the charpoys on which they sleep outdoors. It should be raining, yet
the sky is clear. Prithi Singh, lean and wrinkled, says his entire rice crop has
withered, along with fields sown for fodder.
After two summers of erratic and delayed monsoons, this year the rains simply
failed. Mr Singh cannot afford to pay for a borehole, generator and diesel to
reach ever-diminishing groundwater. Farmers always grumble. But Mr Singh has
lost half of his annual income of 50,000 rupees ($890) and now depends upon his
crop of winter wheat. Another farmer nearby fears he must sell his land to pay
accumulated debts to moneylenders.
The monsoon months, June to September, bring three-quarters of India’s annual
rainfall. Official studies show it to be erratic in four out of every ten years.
Yet farmers rarely get any useful warning of shortfalls. As recently as late
June, India’s meteorologists were predicting a normal monsoon. Punjab and
Haryana, two north-western agricultural states, now say rains are about 70%
below average. Six western states have issued drought warnings. The government
in Delhi says it may soon offer emergency help.
The country remains predominantly rural: over 600m out of 1.24 billion Indians
rely directly on farming. Nearly two-thirds of Indian fields are fed only by
rain. A one-off drought is tolerable. Rural job-creation schemes have lifted
incomes for the poorest. Food prices have only started to creep up. Granaries
are overflowing, thanks to recent bumper crops.
What is disturbing, though, are tentative signs of long-term change to the
summer rains. A less stable monsoon pattern would be harder to predict. It would
arrive late more often, yield less water, become more sporadic, or dump rain in
shorter, more destructive bursts (which happened two years ago in Pakistan,
where the Indus basin disastrously flooded). The concerns of experts about the
monsoon long predate today’s dry spell.
Too little is known about summer weather systems on the subcontinent. India is
short of observation stations, weather planes, satellites, climate scientists
and modellers. The government and foreign donors are scrambling to make amends.
But even with better data, monsoons are ill-understood once they leave the sea
or low-lying land. At altitude, notably, for instance, approaching the
Himalayas, it is far trickier to grasp just how factors such as wind direction,
air pressure, latent heating and moisture levels interact to deliver monsoon
One trend looks clear: India has grown warmer over the past six decades.
Glaciers are melting in the Himalayas, and orchards in the range’s valleys are
being planted on ever-higher slopes in search of a temperate climate. Crops in
the northern grain belt, notably wheat, are near their maximum tolerance to
heat, and so are vulnerable to short-term blasts of higher temperatures. North
India’s cities are also growing hotter.
How more warmth affects the monsoon is not straightforward. A land mass heating
faster than the oceans will, in theory, draw in more moisture to produce heavier
monsoons. Yet the reverse appears to be happening. Specialists who met in
February in Pune, in Maharashtra state, reported a 4.5% decline in monsoon rain
in the three decades to 2009.
India’s leading climate modeller, R. Krishnan, of the Indian Institute of
Tropical Meteorology in Pune, points to a study showing a “steady decline” in
rainfall on the Western Ghats, which run down the west coast. A Japanese model
that he has applied to southern India predicts that a still more rapid decline
in rainfall is likely.
Such a fall may matter little for states such as Kerala in the south, which gets
a monthly drenching of 50 centimetres (20 inches) during the wet season. But Mr
Krishnan notes other changes, notably evidence that far fewer depressions have
formed in the Bay of Bengal, off India’s east coast, in recent summers. Since
these help drive rain to India’s arid northern plains, he concludes that “there
is every reason to be concerned about the monsoon.”
Explanations exist for some of this. One theory is that a growing mass of
particulates, such as coal dust and biomass (from the widespread use of cow dung
as fuel, for instance) in the air above India, now hinders rainfall. Timothy
Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, argues that such
pollution could trigger wider instability in the monsoon.
Yet a decline in average rainfall may not be the main worry. Experts who met in
Delhi in May to discuss climate-induced “extreme events” in India suggest that
likelier threats include more short and devastating downpours and storms, more
frequent floods and droughts, longer consecutive dry days within monsoons, more
rapid drying of the soil as the land heats, and a greater likelihood that plant
and animal diseases might spread.
It does not bode well for farmers, or for crammed cities with poor sewerage and
other rotten infrastructure. Slums and coastal cities look especially
vulnerable. Mumbai was overwhelmed in 2005 when nearly a metre of rain was
dumped on the city in 24 hours.
Such events will happen more often, the highest official in the country’s
environment ministry warns. He wants urgently to bring about a big increase in
insurance schemes that spread weather-related risks. Rajendra Pachauri, who
leads the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, worries
that India is not yet even seriously debating the new threats. He says it is
ill-prepared for floods and droughts “that are now considered
once-in-every-20-years events, but will be happening once in two years”.
The data harvest
The most pressing need is to gather and analyse data. This month Indian
scientists and foreign partners launched a five-year “monsoon mission” to
develop climate models for the region. India’s government is beginning to act,
by setting up new Doppler radar stations to track weather systems over
mountains. It is launching a new plane to fly into cyclones to study their
behaviour. Better still, India and its neighbours could start sharing weather
data, comparing ground and satellite observations, for example.
More can be done elsewhere, too. Most obviously, even the poorest farmers could
work together better to store rainwater, for instance in ponds and tanks, rather
than praying for the skies to open. The share of India’s farmland that is
irrigated could roughly double, officials say. Huge scope exists to reduce
losses through evaporation and leakage from shoddy irrigation systems.
More sophisticated farmers are getting better informed.
One Indian firm, Weather
Risk, sells forecasts to some 75,000 subscribers, mostly farmers across 15
states. Each pays just 30 rupees a month for the information the firm supplies.
It looks worthwhile. Sonu Agrawal of Weather Risk notes growing demand for
detail on highly localised conditions and short-term rain and hail forecasts.
Demand for crop insurance is also rising.
Mr Agrawal and others remain sanguine about today’s dry patch, calling it
typical of the sort of droughts that often show up in historic data stored by
insurance firms. But given great gaps in knowledge about the monsoon, and
uncertainties over climate change, the need for more accurate and complete data
seems pressing. Studying the late rains this year will not help Prithi Singh and
his parched plot today. But clarifying which, if any, trend poses the greatest
threats to farmers like him could turn out to be one of India’s most important